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Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table

4.36  ·  Rating details ·  3,100 ratings  ·  336 reviews

An incredible memoir from one of the world’s most eminent heart surgeons and some of the most remarkable and poignant cases he’s worked on.

Grim Reaper sits on the heart surgeon’s shoulder. A slip of the hand and life ebbs away.

The balance between life and death is so delicate, and the heart surgeon walks that rope between the two. In the operating room there is no time for

Hardcover, 349 pages
Published February 9th 2017 by HARPER COLLINS
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 ·  3,100 ratings  ·  336 reviews

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Start your review of Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table
This is one of those books of medical true-life stories, but is more technical than most By the end, I knew a great deal more of the structure of the heart, blood chemistry and why making lots of pee is extremely important.

The author is a very forthright sort of man, and a very empathetic one too. The people he operates on he describes in detail, I felt for him when he lost a patient, I rejoiced with him when his inventions kept people alive. And I held my breath when he operated on a pregnant
India M. Clamp
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: surgery
Death and surgeons determined walk away from the table is a truly a sight to see. In this case it’s British Cardiac Surgeon Stephen Westaby. Reading Open Heart: A Cardiac Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table takes us to the discovery of a little baby with a congenital hole in its heart and how “nascentes morimur” applies.

Repair is cardinal in the life of this surgeon. Within we witness rehabilitation of a mitral valve, a donor heart transplantation and the excavation of a
“We stop life and start it again, making things better, taking calculated risks.” Although the 2017 Wellcome Prize shortlist has only just been announced, this is my early favorite for the 2018 prize (for fiction and nonfiction on a medical theme). What Henry Marsh did for brain surgery in Do No Harm, Westaby does for cardiac surgery with this vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from a long career at the forefront of artificial heart technology.

A working class lad from Scunthorpe who watc
Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: five-star
A brilliant, thought provoking memoir chronicling renowned heart surgeon Westaby as he details his life and career. Starting from humble beginnings, the author challenges the perception that only public schoolboys get to be surgeons.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hospital predominately featured in this book was my very own local one - and where I began my own career as a registered nurse in 2012. Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting the author personally, his accounts of
May 21, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I had just turned 21 when I was told that my Dad had been feeling a little dizzy and breathless at work, and my Mum had pretty much played it down to me, telling me it was angina, and he probably needed some tablets. My Dad went to a routine check up at the hospital three weeks later, where he had a Transesophageal Echocardiography, and what he thought was going to be a swift outpatients in and out job, lead to a weeks stay on the critical care unit, and a further three on the recovery ward. The ...more
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of those cases where I was in a funk and just going through OverDrive app, trying to find something different to listen to, that would lift me out of the fog and de-stress me.

This one stood out to me, the fact Westaby was from the UK peaked my interest too. I hadn't listened to someone from that profession who lived outside the USA and it had me very curious. I started listening to it the same night on the way to work.

Slightly disappointed he didn't narrate it himself... only because it is
Liz Barnsley
Feb 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read this pretty much in one sitting - an incredibly emotional, informative and really very addictive memoir here from Stephen Westaby, I now know more about the human heart than I ever could imagine that I would.

A true trailblazer but oddly for a man of this nature and genius not at all egotistical, he came across brilliantly and all the stories he told, all the people he saved and the ones he couldn't will stay with me for a long long time.

Spanning many years and many innovations, "Fragile
Kate~Bibliophile Book Club
Feb 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Anyone who reads my blog will know that I rarely, if ever, review non-fiction. It is definitely not my usual genre, but when I saw it pop up on Twitter recently, I was suitably intrigued. I am so SO GLAD I got the chance to read and review Fragile Lives.

Fragile Lives is a memoir written by Stephen Westaby, one of the most well known cardiac surgeons and hugely prolific in his chosen field. A trailblazer from very early on in his career, he continued to pave the way for the use of new and unknown
Mandi Bross
This book...ugh. I really wanted to like it and honesty thought I would. I loved When Breath Becomes Air and thought this might be similar. Not so much. The author is a retired heart surgeon in the UK, so a lot of the commentary about their healthcare system (NHS) felt disconnected to me. It was very technical and explained medical procedures in great (overly excessive) detail, and I skimmed through some of these descriptions. My biggest complaint about the book, however, is the fact that Westab ...more
Alex Givant
Oct 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs, tts, best-of-2018
Excellent memoir of cardio surgeon. If you think your job is hard - please read this book and you'll be happy for the job you have.
Jackie Law
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“A successful cardiac surgeon is a man who, when asked to identify the three best surgeons in the world, has difficulty in naming the other two.”

Fragile Lives, by Professor Stephen Westaby, is a memoir that is both awe inspiring and heart-rending. It tells the story of the medical career of a man raised in working class Scunthorpe who became a world class, ground-breaking cardiac surgeon before watching his life saving profession being stymied by the NHS bureaucracy that we know today.

The first
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
As a child Westaby watched two of his grandparents die slow painful deaths; his grandfather from heart failure and his grandmother from a cancer which left her to suffocate. This experience has clearly directed his career and his desires to help those who would otherwise be written off. He says you need to be objective as a surgeon, but he never comes across as uncaring.

It's amazing how far medicine has come in just a few generations. Who would have thought artificial hearts can and do work. The
Chantal Lyons
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Like many UK readers, I read Henry Marsh's remarkable "Do No Harm". That book is a wondrous eye-opener; "Fragile Lives" is a gut-wrenching adrenaline rush, written by another member of the retired-eminent-surgeon club, Stephen Westaby.

The writing is no-nonsense yet vivid, sparing with its forays into more imaginative territory. A child’s heart looks like a ‘quivering black banana’ after Westaby’s finished trying to make it work again. The straw-coloured fluid that often pours out of a pierced pe
Feb 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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I really, really enjoyed this memoir - I fancied something that would make a change from all the fiction I usually read, and this turned out to be the perfect pick.

It's full of fascinating stories, both from Professor Stephen Westaby himself as he takes us through some of the key operations in his career, but there's also a lot focusing on the people going under Westaby's knife and how they felt, what led to them needing surgery (including back storie
Nov 22, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Stephen Westaby was obviously a heart surgeon of great distinction, and this book is full of the most intense kinds of medical drama: stories of life and death, suffering and heartbreak, survival and joy, skill and luck, and the astonishing interface of flesh and technology. My difficulty with the book, however, is Stephen Westaby. His favourite word is ‘bugger’. He ‘learned from the great men’. He has a joke with a Japanese colleague about not mentioning the war. Julia, one of his patients, was ...more
Mahnoor Asif
Oct 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
A perfect memoir by a cardiac surgeon.

He covers mostly his professional career and gives very little insight into his personal life. The book is written in such an empathic manner that one could rejoice with the author when a patient is saved. A very detailed account of every case but the author mostly focuses on the surgical procedure. I like the author's approach as a surgeon, he was empathic and at the same time with very tough nerves. This book is a little technical and you can get through
Westaby is an insufferable person. Yet, his arrogance, disregard for hospital politics, and pompous nature makes him an excellent advocate for terminally ill patients who are denied treatment options due to risks involved or simply lack of imagination. I admire many of his bold decisions and applaud his triumph in many pioneer ventricular assist device installations. However, Westaby's self-importance is almost intolerable, just from reading this book! I get that he is great and has saved lives. ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is the story of a cardiac surgeon and the decisions he makes, the outcomes of those decisions and most importantly (for me) the impact of those outcomes. Dr Westaby (Mr Westaby? I'm not sure of the convention) is a real human being who is emotionally committed to his job and his patients. He isn't the aloof, stand offish surgeon refusing to acknowledge the conscious lives of the bodies on his table and the book is very rich because of that. You feel his pain - and his joy - and you learn wh ...more
May 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Surgeons seem to be a breed apart. After reading this book I think I understand why they need to be a breed apart. It would require great courage to deliberately pick up that scalpel, knowing that the surgery you're going to do could possibly end someones' life. Then to be able to carry on through the next operation, and the next, and the next, forever, with the same courage.

A most enjoyable read to learn about what does on in the mind of the person wielding the scalpel.
Mar 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
[b]As I received this book from Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review, the review itself will be written in English as so it is the book. I feel the need to provide an review for its community in the same language it was provided to me. [/b]

I don’t know what I was expecting when I requested the book, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I do have to say I do know a bit regarding anatomy and physiology, and I did not expect the author to dive in it so deep on it. I mean, there are even diagram
May 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an incredible compilation. I'm not sure why, but with medicine, despite the fact that you lose more patients than you can save, it's those few survivors that give you the ability to persevere. They make it all matter. It doesn't matter how smart you are, you just need to be smart enough to care more than others, to be more passionate than others. It's tragic that a healthcare system is in the hands of political leaders who usually don't know enough about the preciousness of human life. I ...more
Alexa Fischer
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow. What really struck me about this book was that Westaby wasn't shy about sharing the full depths of his feelings. Like most med-reads, it was well-written with a great range of interesting, unique cases to keep the reader captivated, but this one had raw emotion as other medical books somehow didn't. For example, I was a bit surprised that he would openly admit that he couldn't handle talking to the family; he wasn't afraid to be vulnerable and human in ways that surgeons rarely seem to be. ...more
Ardon Pillay
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medicine
A brilliant reflection on a long career in cardiothoracic surgery.

It’s full of rich anatomical detail, written in flowing prose, with such vivid descriptions of patients and the conditions they had to endure. He clearly explains his thought processes as he goes through each operation, listing every step, and why each of those actions were so critical. It’s all summed up at the end when he tracks the post operative outcomes of patients; he links the some of the steps taken in surgery to the vari
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Westaby is a pioneering heart surgeon who retired recently after 50 years at the operating table. Here he recounts some of his more interesting cases. There were some fascinating stories and Westaby comes across as a surgeon with heart (pun totally intended). I would recommend this to anybody who enjoys a good medical memoir.
Sharon Barrow Wilfong
Open Heart reads like a fast-paced action adventure movie. Westaby takes us on a brief biographical journey as to how he became interested in heart surgery, his training and then torpedoes straight into different life or death situations which require delicate procedures, his abilities and steely confidence.

We meet a young girl with a genetic heart defect, an old man with congestive heart failure, a pregnant woman who needs surgery but refuses to terminate the life of her unborn baby as well as
Sean Goh
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Powerfully moving, probably because the subject matter is one of life and death. Lost count of the number of times I was gripped by strong feelings.
Repetitive at times (how many times do you want to hear about the author sawing through the sternum with the electrocautery, piercing the pericardium etc etc. Still, each case is sufficiently distinctive to not lose the reader. The author has an interesting habit of thinking up innovative surgical methods on long flights, which was cool.
Never get
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
This book is a bit like Grey's Anatomy with each chapter and case study emotionally gripping and heart wrenching (pun not intended). Westaby is humble in his arrogance and self-effacing in his success. He knows exactly what he is all about and how to get the story out without getting lost in the details. This last part is hugely important because he also doesn't scrimp on the technical language and bits and pieces of the body that gets sawed through and dropped and battered while being fixed and ...more
I am always drawn to books written by physicians about their experiences as I've always been fascinated by the field of medicine. This book was very well written. The author is drawn to cardiology after witnessing the death of a cardiac patient during an operation - an operation he watched unnoticed from the viewing area high above the operating table where he should not have been. He makes it his goal to save as many people as possible from cardiac death. The book covers his ups and downs throu ...more
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
William would love this book! Dr. Westaby, who was inspired to study medicine by a television drama, would make a great role model for him.

There are many technical intricacies that I don't comprehend, but William would appreciate. I get enough of the gist to understand what is happening with the procedures. I especially like Dr. Westaby's reflections on his own life and rely on his view regarding what makes a great surgeon.

The book I read was titled "Open Heart".
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Way. Too many. Distracting. Sentence fragments. Not a natural writer. Some interesting anecdotes. Lots of whinging about the British health care system, which had limited relevance to this American reader.
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